Public Schools

Prayer in Public Schools

In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Engel v. Vitale, holding that daily, scheduled prayers in public school violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is up to parents, not the government, to direct the religious upbringing of children, or lack thereof. 


Individual students have a robust right to pray privately and nondisruptively in public schools. Attempts to insert more prayer into school-sponsored activities are nothing more than attempts to use the machinery of the state to promote religion, violating the rights of public school students to a secular education. The FFRF Action Fund vigorously opposes all such efforts.


Vouchers – Public Funding of Religious Education

Voucher programs run counter to founding principles of the United States. A cornerstone of America is our “common school” — free, publicly supported schools open to all children regardless of social class, religion, ethnicity, gender or country of origin. America forged the very concept of universal education. Another foundation of our republic is the guarantee of government accountability to citizens about where their taxes go. Every taxpayer has a right to assurances that their taxes will not be used to promote a religion to which they do not agree. In fact, avoiding state-directed religious funding was one of the primary concerns behind the adoption of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.


The vast majority of private schools are religiously affiliated. Vouchers and tuition tax credits (or other “neo-voucher” programs) almost entirely benefit religious schools with overtly religious missions, which integrate religion into every subject. Further, the vast majority of voucher beneficiaries are students who would have attended private religious schools anyway. The effect of such programs is thus to divert public funding from public schools to private religious schools without any reasonable justification.


In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court held that if a state chooses to fund secular private schools with taxpayer funds, it is essentially forced to fund private religious education as well. After this decision, the only way for states to protect taxpayers’ right to not fund religious indoctrination is to reject voucher programs entirely. Public funds should be used for public education, and private schools must rely on private funding. Although the Supreme Court has forced states’ hands, preventing them from selectively funding secular private education, returning to a well-funded “common school” model promotes equitable education for all American children, rather than favoring wealthy and religious families.


For all the above reasons, the FFRF Action Fund views voucher programs as a core state/church issue and strongly advocates for the end of all voucher and neo-voucher programs.


Public School Bible Classes

Recent attempts to insert bible classes into public school curricula are based on the Project Blitz model legislation called the “Bible Literacy Act,” lifted straight from the Project Blitz playbook. Project Blitz is a three-pronged Christian Nationalist strategy designed to flood legislatures with bills that use the machinery of the state to promote Christianity. Project Blitz’s goal is to make Christians a favored class and all non-Christians second-class citizens. The intent of these bills is thus inherently highly suspect.


It is difficult to teach the bible objectively and critically, as the First Amendment requires. For instance, few Christian parents want their public schools teaching that some bible translations claim that Jesus was born of a “virgin” because they mistranslated the Hebrew word for “young woman.” This simple fact would have to be taught in unbiased classes and is recognized in more accurate bible translations. Classes would have to include objective lessons like this—they cannot omit facts that contradict a pro-Christian narrative. In practice, K-12 bible classes will almost invariably and impermissibly promote the teachers’ personal religious beliefs. The FFRF Action Fund thus opposes all bills that would insert such classes into public school curricula.


Public school students should learn about religion, in the context of studying cultural diversity. In fact, learning about religious traditions apart from the majority religion where students live is often a first step for students to realize that most religious beliefs and affiliations are primarily an accident of geography, leading to a healthy skepticism of the belief systems that students were indoctrinated into. However, in practice such studies are rare and require subtle expertise in teaching that is more likely to be found at the university level. 


In God We Trust

For an overwhelming part of U.S. history, America’s motto was purely secular, “E Pluribus Unum” (From many [come] one). E Pluribus Unum was chosen by a committee of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin. Many Americans mistakenly assume our founders chose “In God We Trust” as the motto, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our founders were committed to a secular government. For most of U.S. history, our money was likewise free of religion.


In recent years, many states have passed laws aimed at placing In God We Trust in public schools. This sudden trend is no coincidence. The laws are part of a nation-wide effort called Project Blitz, a Christian nationalist crusade that seeks to redefine what it means to be an American—so that to be an American is to be a Christian and to be a Christian is to be an American—and then to rewrite the law accordingly. Project Blitz’s goal is to favor Christians as a special class, while relegating everyone else to second-class status.


Emblazoning In God We Trust in public schools furthers that goal. The new laws in most of these states mirror the model bill in the Project Blitz handbook. Some legislators pushing these bills are unaware of their connection to Christian nationalism, while for others it’s exactly why they support them. The FFRF Action Fund is actively working to oppose the efforts of Project Blitz, including the placement of In God We Trust in public schools around the country.


The defense of “In God We Trust” relies on transparent double-speak: proponents of the motto argue that its presence on government property is consistent with the Establishment Clause because the motto is not religious (sometimes invoking the concept of “ceremonial deism”), but once that hurdle has been cleared the same proponents point to the motto as supposed evidence that the United States is a Christian nation, because the motto is both religious and specifically Christian. It is long past time for the United States to correct this historic error by returning to our original motto and replacing every instance of “In God We Trust” on government property with “E Pluribus Unum.”


Public School Release Time

The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed public schools to implement rules permitting students to leave school grounds for religious instruction during the school day, so long as the school district is not involved in the religious programming. However, such programs are an academic disservice to students and interfere with schools’ ability to provide effective education. Parents have ample time to provide their children with religious instruction, and should not do so in place of secular class time.


Particularly dangerous are laws that allow students to receive school credit for unregulated release time religious instruction. Since schools cannot (by law) direct such instruction, it cannot verify that academic standards are met, or that students are meeting expectations that would be required to receive comparable credit in a secular class. This leaves students under-educated and with misleadingly inflated high school transcripts, misleading potential universities or employers with undeserved credits. Religion-obsessed Orthodox yeshivas in New York serve as a cautionary tale of how substituting religious instruction in place of secular studies can devastate students’ lives.


The FFRF Action Fund opposes all expansions of release time programs, especially those offering school credit.


Pledge of Allegiance

The original Pledge of Allegiance was authored by a socialist minister, Francis Bellamy, but was a secular pledge written at a time of rising nationalism around the globe. While some view the Pledge as a solemn moment to show patriotism, the mandatory inclusion of the Pledge at government functions coerces participation and becomes an exercise of nationalism rather than patriotism. With the 1950s insertion of “under God” into the Pledge, the exercise becomes one of Christian Nationalism. 


Many patriotic Americans prefer not to recite the Pledge, often because they do not want to pledge to a deity they do not believe in, or because they object to the notion that the United States lived up to the promise of “liberty and justice for all.” It is contrary to American principles of free speech to coerce participation in the Pledge by including the practice in official government functions, asking the audience to stand, and leading the Pledge from a dais or the front of a classroom. The FFRF Action Fund supports efforts to remove the Pledge from government-sponsored activities for this reason.